Ch 44: A Mindful Breath

A young boy wearing the ivory disciple’s robes of Kunlun bounded down the stairs of the temple, nearly tripping over his own feet in his haste, when Bai Qian and Ye Hua arrived on Kunlun Mountain. Ye Hua tensed, prepared to catch him should he stumble and fall. He hid a smile when the boy caught his balance at the last second and then leapt right over the last two steps to reach them more quickly.

“Your Highness. My Lady.” The boy greeted them with the kind of sloppy bow Ye Hua’s parents used to scold him and Mo Yuan for when they were young. Ye Hua hid another smile. “My name is Die Feng. Shifu asked me to greet you when you arrived. If you need anything while you’re staying here you can ask for me. Follow me… please.”

Bai Qian stuck close to Ye Hua’s side as they followed Die Feng.

“Do you like training here?” Bai Qian asked as Die Feng led them down a different corridor of the temple than the ones they had walked the day before.

“Oh yes. I’ve learned so much already. Father says Shifu is a great scholar and a respected warrior and I am lucky to have the opportunity to learn from him.” He paused, a small frown appearing on his face. “Only I’m always the one who gets stuck with the unpleasant chores nobody else wants to do since I’m the youngest disciple.”

“Like leading boring guests around?” Ye Hua asked, extra amused because all Die Feng had to do was tell him where Mo Yuan was. Ye Hua knew the temple layout well enough to find his brother. And even if he didn’t, the black dragon could sense his brother’s dragon nearby and would lead him there. 

“Yes, just like that,” Die Feng agreed before stopping in his tracks. He turned to face them with wide eyes. “I mean… no. It’s nothing but an honor to help guide Your Highness the Crown Prince along with your lady through the temple.” 

Ye Hua chuckled. “It’s all right. I understand. I wouldn’t want to be stuck leading me around all over the place either. Not when there are other, more interesting things to be doing.”

“I was the youngest in my family,” Bai Qian added, “so I know what it’s like to be stuck doing what nobody else wants to do.”

“Shifu says it will help me learn both respect and discipline,” Die Feng responded, seeming to relax now that he realized neither Ye Hua nor Bai Qian was angry about his slip up. The boy shrugged. “Maybe it will but I still think it’s because I’m the youngest. I don’t really mind though because one day I’m going to be a senior to new disciples. And I’ll be a great warrior just like Shifu is.”

“That’s a lofty goal to strive for but a worthy one,” Ye Hua responded as they resumed walking. He was pleased when Die Feng’s shoulders straightened so he could stand a little taller. Ye Hua liked the boy and hoped he one day achieved his goal.

Die Feng led him and Bai Qian to a spacious room built off of the kitchen. There were several tables placed throughout with plenty of seats available for the disciples to sit down and eat a meal together. Breakfast had already ended so all the tables were empty except the smaller one placed in the front of the room. Mo Yuan was there with Meixiu, Zhe Yan, and King Zhao Hui. Bai Qian smiled brightly when she spotted her father’s old friend.

The occupants of the table stood as Ye Hua and Bai Qian approached. Die Feng bowed respectfully to Mo Yuan before quietly exiting the room. 

Bai Qian hurried over to King Zhao Hui and bowed in greeting. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders in a fatherly hug. 

“Look at you, Qian Qian, all grown up,” he said in a voice gruff with emotion. “It does my mind and heart good to finally see for myself that you are alive and well. I could barely believe what I was hearing when Zhe Yan shared the joyous news with me.” His expression grew sad. “I am sorry I arrived too late to help save your family that night. I miss them and I regret I never had the chance to repay your parents’ friendship and wise counsel. So I hope you will come to me if you ever need anything, Qian Qian. Anything at all. Please don’t hesitate to ask.”

“I won’t,” Bai Qian answered in a soft voice. “Thank you.”

“I’m happy that everybody and everything made it back here in one piece,” Mo Yuan stated to Ye Hua as Bai Qian and King Zhao Hui were greeting each other, letting Ye Hua know he knew about the borrowed bed. 

“Though I had some serious doubts about the latter,” he continued with a grin. 

“Thank you for your hospitality, Da Ge,” Ye Hua responded, returning the grin. “I greatly appreciate it.”

“I’m sure you do,” Mo Yuan said with a laugh, giving Ye Hua’s shoulder a firm squeeze. “Let me introduce you to Meixiu.”

There was affection in Mo Yuan’s expression as he introduced Ye Hua to the Eagle Princess. Ye Hua was happy for his brother and greeted Meixiu warmly before introducing her to Bai Qian when she was done speaking with King Zhao Hui. Ye Hua liked Meixiu and Bai Qian seemed to as well judging by her bright smile as the two women talked.

“Please join us at the table,” Mo Yuan said once the introductions were finished. “We were discussing some important plans about how to track down the traitor in the Heavens.”

Meixiu moved to sit in between Zhe Yan and Mo Yuan so Bai Qian and Ye Hua could sit together on one side of the table.

“Meixiu has volunteered to speak with the Bear Clan today,” Mo Yuan explained after everybody was settled. “The bears were suspicious and very guarded with their words when I questioned them about whether they had noticed anything unusual.”

“The bears have worked with my people in the past and my father knows one of the clan elders well so I think they will feel comfortable sharing information with me if they’ve heard of anybody acting strangely,” Meixiu added.

“Father and I are going to see if we can track down who provided the jar of phoenix fire illegally,” Zhe Yan said. “In the past, phoenixes used to sell their fire until Father found out about it and outlawed it.” 

“It was just too dangerous to have such magic in the hands of others,” King Zhao Hui added.

“Yes,” Zhen Yan said when his father didn’t speak any further. “But only jars crafted with very special magic are able to contain the flames so we need to find who is still crafting the jars and which phoenix provided the fire used to burn the warehouse.” He directed his attention to Ye Hua. “Ye Hua, I think you should investigate the place where the vulture trespassed onto Kunlun to see if you can find anything I may have missed.”

“That’s a good idea,” Ye Hua agreed, eager to join the hunt for the person who posed a threat to Bai Qian. He had an eye for detail because he was an artist and Zhe Yan often bemoaned the fact Ye Hua could always spot things nobody else could. He just hoped the vulture had been too worried about being spotted to take to the air as he evaded capture by Zhe Yan or one of Mo Yuan’s disciples. The black dragon grumbled at the idea the vulture may have left no trail. 

“Isn’t there a vulture settlement where you could ask around?” Bai Qian asked with curiosity.

“Unfortunately no,” Ye Hua responded. “Vultures tend to be loners or they live in small scattered groups that roam the land. They can be difficult to track down. It will be easier if I can find something to help point me in the right direction. Even if the vulture moved the location of his living space right after, he may have left behind other clues that could help us find him.”

The group discussed other ways they may be able to get information if their current plans yielded little before deciding to get on with their day. Meixiu was the first to leave. She gave Mo Yuan a kiss on the cheek and whispered that she’d see him later before exiting the room. Zhe Yan and his father followed soon after.   

“Bai Qian and I will begin her training today,” Mo Yuan said once there were just the three of them left in the room.

A jolt of nervousness shot through Bai Qian though it was less intense than those she had experienced earlier in the morning. A large hand covered hers and gave a comforting squeeze. She looked up at Ye Hua who was studying her with concern and she smiled at him to let him know she was okay. This is it, she thought to herself. The next big step in taking back my life. 

“I shouldn’t be too far away and Mo Yuan can get in touch with me at any time if you need me for anything.” Bai Qian nodded to let Ye Hua know she understood. “I won’t be gone too long.”

“Be careful,” she whispered, remembering the way her mother would always tell her father the same thing when he was leaving to do something that could be dangerous.

“Always,” Ye Hua whispered back before kissing her lips softly. He left the room with one glance back in her direction.

A moment of awkward silence filled the room before Bai Qian turned to face Mo Yuan. She blushed when she realized Ye Hua had kissed her right in front of his brother and the heat in her cheeks deepened when she remembered being caught sneaking into Ye Hua’s room the night before. She had no idea what Mo Yuan might be thinking; his expressions were more difficult to read than Ye Hua’s. Or maybe it was because she didn’t have the same innate connection with him like she did with Ye Hua.

“Last night was my fault, Bai Qian.”

“What?” Bai Qian couldn’t keep the surprise out of her tone. 

“I should have asked you and Ye Hua about your preferred sleeping arrangements instead of assuming you would want two separate rooms. I apologize for putting you in an awkward position.”

“We also could have said something,” Bai Qian responded. She couldn’t help but smile, amusement chasing away some of her embarrassment. Then she hurried to change the subject. “You may call me Qian if you prefer. Or Qian Qian.”

“I will do that, Qian. But I will stick with Bai Qian during training sessions because I think it will help you stay focused.” 

“Thank you for agreeing to train me. I hope I’m not keeping you from teaching classes this morning.”

“You don’t need to worry about that,” Mo Yuan said. “I encourage my disciples to study on their own and amongst themselves just as much as I have them attend formal classes. There are benefits to learning in a variety of ways and much they can learn from each other. Are you ready to get started?” 

Bai Qian nodded, surprised to find that it was the truth now that she was feeling more comfortable with Mo Yuan and the situation. She followed Mo Yuan out of the room and down a long corridor. He walked more quickly than Ye Hua and she had to pick up her pace to keep up with him.

“Should I call you Shifu?” she asked curiously once she had caught up with him.

“Only if you plan to become one of my disciples,” Mo Yuan responded with a chuckle as he led her to the lotus pond located in the courtyard behind Kunlun Temple. “Otherwise you may call me Mo Yuan. There’s no need for formal titles except on formal occasions. We are family now.”

“How can you say that with such confidence when you barely know me? And how can you already trust me enough to give me leave to visit Kunlun any time?” Bai Qian asked, remembering his words of welcome from the day before. She had been curious about it ever since. It seemed strange for someone who by all accounts lived a very guarded and disciplined life to relax his rules for her without even getting to know her first.

“I am grateful for your generosity, of course,” she added quickly. “And your acceptance. I guess I just don’t understand why.”  

Mo Yuan didn’t immediately answer. Instead he took a seat at the edge of the lotus pond and encouraged her to do the same. Bai Qian did, enjoying the trickling sound of water cascading from the top level of the pond to the larger pool below and admiring the vibrant beauty of the lotus flowers. It was clear the lotus pond was only just getting started but the flowers that were there were a sight to behold already. The water was peaceful and relaxing which she guessed may have been why Mo Yuan had chosen this place.

“The simple answer is that Ye Hua trusts you,” Mo Yuan said, finally answering her question. “And I trust Ye Hua implicitly.”

“And the more complicated answer?” she prodded, wondering if he would answer her.

“I’ve seen how happy you make Ye Hua,” Mo Yuan answered quietly. “He changed when he was named Crown Prince. Not to an extent that most people would notice but I know and understand Ye Hua almost as well as I do myself. So I could see that he was no longer himself. He didn’t smile as often and he closed himself off from the people around him. He rarely painted and Ye Hua has always been enthusiastic about his painting. All of that changed once you entered his life. Even before he found you, there was a positive change taking place inside him. It was difficult to see it at first and I initially worried he was acting stranger than normal. But the more he searched for you, the more he started to become the old Ye Hua again.”

Mo Yuan paused before continuing. “And he always insisted you were out there even when he had absolutely no proof. I thought he was imagining things when he claimed his dragon could sense your presence in the forest. That alone speaks volumes about the nature of your relationship. So you are family without a doubt, Qian.”       

“He could sense my presence,” Bai Qian repeated thoughtfully. “I didn’t realize he could do so that early on. Ye Hua shouldn’t have been able to detect me at all. Not when I was in my fox form. When foxes shift, our cultivation becomes undetectable to all except for close family.”

“So I discovered last night,” Mo Yuan responded with a smile, “when I unexpectedly ran into a small fox sneaking down the corridor. I had no idea you were there until I spotted you.” 

His smile faded as his expression grew serious. “That’s an advantage you have over others and it’s an important one, Bai Qian. It can help you get away if needed. Meixiu will teach you how to fight and defend yourself and I will teach you how to become stronger in body and mind. I believe you will become very powerful one day. You have a lot of untapped potential. But until that time comes, my advice to you would be to shift and run to avoid a fight if at all possible.”  

“Meixiu will be teaching me?” Bai Qian questioned, wondering if Mo Yuan did indeed see her as somebody who was not yet ready to train with him. 

“Yes, but not for the reasons you may be thinking. Ye Hua told me you are fast and stealthy. The martial art styles I know best are ones that rely on strength and force. The eagles’ preferred combat style matches your natural skill set perfectly and I believe it is something you can learn quickly which is most important right now. Meixiu is a powerful warrior in her own right and her grandfather has given her permission to share what she knows with you. She is also the best person to teach you about fighting an opponent who is larger than you are because that is a challenge she has faced often.”

“I understand,” Bai Qian told him. “So then you will teach me how to increase the amount of power I have?”

“Yes, I will show you how to use meditation to help cultivate more magic. But first I want to ask you something I always ask my disciples when they first come to Kunlun Mountain. What do you hope to get out of your training, Bai Qian?”

Bai Qian straightened her shoulders as she gave the question careful thought. “I want to become a better person and grow stronger to make my parents proud. And I want to be able to fight back and defend myself and others around me who aren’t able to defend themselves. I don’t want to feel helpless when I’m confronted by somebody like Weisheng in the future. And I don’t want to have to depend on Ye Hua to protect me my whole life.” She turned and met Mo Yuan’s eyes. “But above all else, I no longer want to be afraid. I’m tired of living with fear all the time.”

“Fear is a primal emotion,” Mo Yuan said, studying her. “It is like anger and love… or sadness… ingrained within you and difficult to erase.”

“You don’t think it’s possible?”

“I think very few accomplish it. Most people who appear unafraid still experience fear. They just don’t show it. And I believe those that do eliminate their fear put themselves at a disadvantage without even realizing it and not just because they often separate themselves from all of their other emotions along with it. Fear serves an important purpose that shouldn’t be dismissed.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” Bai Qian told him, staring out over the lotus pond with a pensive frown. All the times fear had held her paralyzed or left her unable to move forward with her life crossed through her mind. “When Weisheng found me, I was too afraid to react or even move. I couldn’t even call out for help. Fear has done nothing but hinder me.”

“That is because your fear was in control,” Mo Yuan explained. “When it controls you, all the advantages it can provide are lost. And there are advantages. Fear urges us to be cautious so we don’t rush headlong into a situation that doesn’t feel safe and often isn’t. We tend to assess our surroundings much more closely when we are afraid and that can provide a greater opportunity to stop and think ahead or avoid danger altogether. It can enhance your senses. Have you ever noticed how you seem to hear every little noise and see every little movement when you are afraid?”

Bai Qian nodded.

“So use that to your advantage. With practice you can learn how to filter out the important information. And like anger, fear can provide bursts of greater strength and speed. The key is to control your fear so it doesn’t control you.”

Bai Qian didn’t immediately respond as she considered Mo Yuan’s advice. It was true that she had known something wasn’t right before running into Weisheng. Just as she had known something was wrong in the Fox Den the night her family had been murdered before she had smelled or heard any evidence of what was happening. Fear had probably saved her life when she was a girl.          

“You may hear people sharing stories of great warriors who feared nothing but I promise you that couldn’t be further from the truth. Strive to master your fear, not destroy it.”

“Control my fear so it doesn’t control me,” Bai Qian murmured. 

“Yes. That is a much more realistic and beneficial goal.”

“How do I do that?” she asked him, warming up to the idea.

“Meditation is the best way. The meditative arts don’t just help you cultivate more strength. They can also help you learn to be more present in the moment which can calm your emotions. With practice, the techniques can be used in all different kinds of situations.”

“And meditation will help me remember more about the dragon traitor who was in the Fox Den the night my family was killed, right?”   

A glint of golden anger flashed in Mo Yuan’s gaze at Bai Qian’s mention of the traitor. It was gone as quickly as it had appeared and she would have missed it if she hadn’t been looking directly at him when she asked the question. It reminded her of the glimpses of anger she would see in Ye Hua’s expression when discussing her family’s murder or what had happened to her in the Heavens. They both hid it well but she found comfort in the knowledge that Ye Hua and his brother were taking her story seriously. 

“Yes,” Mo Yuan answered. “When you have learned to calm your emotions through meditation they will no longer cloud your thoughts with fear and pain. You will be able to go back to the memory of that night with a clear and objective frame of mind which should help you remember the details more clearly.”

“Good,” said Bai Qian with a firm tone that matched her determination to help unmask the culprit.  

“Whether it will be enough to reveal his identity remains to be seen,” Mo Yuan reminded her. “And Ye Hua and I are exhausting all the other possible ways we might be able to discover who it is in the meantime. So don’t let that distract you from your primary goals which are cultivating more power and calming your emotions.”

“Okay,” she agreed reluctantly, not wanting to disagree with Mo Yuan during their first lesson. She would try to follow his advice but it was a challenge to ignore the opportunity to learn more about the identity of the man who had betrayed the Heavens and her family. 

“I know it’s difficult to not jump right into trying to remember more about that night, Bai Qian, but your attempts to do so will be more rewarding if you learn the basics first.”

“I understand,” Bai Qian said and she did. Didn’t Mo Yuan’s advice match that which she was always giving herself? Take it one step at a time.

“To begin,” Mo Yuan said, starting the lesson. “I want you to practice clearing your mind and focusing only on the here and now. Close your eyes.”

Bai Qian did, settling into a more comfortable position. 

“Focus only on your body position and your breathing,” Mo Yuan continued, his voice soft and soothing. “Breathe with intention. Take a long, slow breath in and then let it out just as slowly. Fill your lungs completely before exhaling. You should feel your body relax as you breathe. Allow tension to leave your body with every exhale.”

To her surprise, it was working. Bai Qian did indeed start to feel more relaxed in body. She did not feel the same relaxation in her mind however. Questions continued to wander through her thoughts. 

“Thoughts will come unbidden in the beginning,” Mo Yuan said as if sensing her busy mind. “Let them come. And then let them go with the next exhale. Acknowledge them but don’t linger on them. Soon you will find they come less often.”

Mo Yuan grew silent and Bai Qian continued to focus on breathing at a slow and steady rate. It was more difficult than she ever would have imagined to empty her mind, to not think about anything other than her breathing. She opened her eyes and glanced at Mo Yuan briefly. His eyes were closed in meditation. Closing her eyes again, Bai Qian tried to imitate his example.

It worked for about ten minutes. Then she started to wonder what Ye Hua was doing. Was he safe? Was he finding anything useful in his hunt? These questions about Ye Hua brought memories of their passionate night together to the forefront. Bai Qian’s face flushed and she pushed the arousing memories away. What about King Zhao Hui and Zhe Yan? Were they having any luck in finding who was selling jars of phoenix fire? 

Huffing with frustration, Bai Qian opened her eyes. “This is a lot harder than I thought it would be,” she stated, turning to look at Mo Yuan who was now watching her with a smile of amusement.

“You remind me of my brother,” he said, chuckling. “Ye Hua is always easily distracted while meditating. That’s why you rarely see him doing so… at least, he rarely meditates in the traditional way. He only bothers to meditate for very special reasons. Otherwise, he finds a similar state of mind while he paints.”

“While he paints?”

“Yes. Watch him sometime when he’s lost in a painting. He’s only concentrating on the image in front of him. It helps him let go of stray thoughts and calms him. I think the same idea could be helpful for you. Turn your gaze to the lotus pond and study the water or the lotus flowers instead of closing your eyes. That will give you something to concentrate on along with your breathing which should help you slow down your thoughts. We’ll work on this today. Next time I will show you how to channel your magic to a certain point in order to start cultivating more power.”

“Okay,” Bai Qian agreed, turning to look out over the lotus pond. There were yellow, white, and red blooms gently swaying with the water. A small trickle of water ran from a bamboo spout, dripping into the pool of water before her. Waves rippled out in concentric circles every time a drop of water struck the surface. At first, she didn’t notice any difference and errant ponderings and questions continued to flit through her. But after a while, her mind quieted and only the beautiful lotus flowers and the ripples of water were present there. 

⇛ Next part: Ch 45: Sweet Confessions

⇚ Previous part: Ch 43: In the Quiet of Morning

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